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In the 1920s it would have been difficult to find many women who were as at home in the Canadian wilderness as Anahareo, a young Mohawk woman who travelled by train, plane, canoe or on foot through the wilds of Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, sometimes with her husband, sometimes with other trappers and prospectors, and sometimes on her own. In Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl, a memoir by Anahareo (University of Manitoba Press), we meet a naïve but curious eighteen-year-old girl who follows Grey Owl (a.k.a. Archie Belaney, an Englishman who became famous for his supposed Indian blood and for his extensive writings and lectures on the importance of protecting the environment) into the bush to help him on his traplines. Instead she became an important influence in his conversion to conservationism, and later she was instrumental in getting Grey Owl his first publication and his first speaking gig. The couple’s main focus was to protect the beaver; at one time they shared their cabin with six tame beavers who could come and go through a tunnel that ran under the foundation and out to a lake where the beavers built a dam. After reading Anahareo’s straightforward book, I was excited to find a copy of Grey Owl’s Tales of an Empty Cabin (Macmillan, 1936). This would be a chance to see their relationship from Archie’s point of view, which I guess is what I did: Anahareo is mentioned only briefly. Not only that, Belaney’s prose is florid and verbose. Devil in Deerskins was first published in 1972, and this new version, which includes forewords by Anahareo’s daughters and a lengthy afterword that gives us the historical context for her life, is the first book in a new series called First Voices, First Text. An auspicious beginning.
Naomi Fontaine is an Innu writer who grew up surrounded by the beauty of the north and the poverty, drug addiction and violence of modern Innu life. Her first book, Kuessipan, translated from the French by David Homel (Arsenal Pulp), is written in what feels like free verse or vignettes (although the book is listed as a novel) and reveals a yearning to get away, even if temporarily, from the ugliness of the reserve and back to the clarity of the nomadic life. Yet this sad place—where there are hundreds of houses but only three designs, the park has been vandalized, garbage is heaped up at the street corners, the field is overrun with vermin, twelve-year-olds sniff glue until they black out and every girl wants to get pregnant so she will have “something for herself”—still has the strong pull of home. At times Fontaine’s vignettes state the obvious, but the overall impression left by this haunting book is of fragmented lives and no clear answers.